Friday, 15 June 2012

Hawaiian Gothic, Maggots, and the Importance of a Useful Warning

I've been going back and forth on whether or not to write about this issue. For one, it's technically responding to a negative review (although I'm sincerely hoping the reviewer doesn't feel attacked by this, because I think her concerns are valid), for two, I'm going to be criticizing my publisher a little, but they're hardly the only ones I could talk about in this regard. Ultimately, I've decided to post because I think this is a conversation worth having, and I'm hoping that my weighing in here will seem reasoned and thoughtful and not like an author's sour grapes.

So first things first, Hawaiian Gothic has been out since Tuesday and has gotten some really wonderful responses. I'm not just talking about positive reviews (although those are totally awesome), but also just people discussing 1. How much they appreciate the concept and the fact that our heroes are POC, 2. The story in general, whether they liked it or no. I've been writing for a long time, but it was always a very private, lonely sort of thing, up until I started dabbling in fanfiction in my mid-twenties. Before fanfic, though, I'd have to beg and scrape to get a reader response to my work, usually from a teacher or my mom or a close friend, and often that feedback was pretty... diplomatic, sometimes to the point of being kind of generic. Which, you know, is fine, because nobody owes me a deep and thoughtful analysis of my writing. But anyway, I'm at the point where any response is incredibly novel and exhilarating and enlightening, especially when people aren't talking to me or for me, but are actually talking amongst themselves as readers for their own benefit, a process which has nothing to do with me. I feel so privileged to know people find something I wrote worth talking about!

So anyway, I've been eavesdropping a little. And one thing I happened to spot on Goodreads was a person who enjoyed the first half of the book, but in the second half had to give it a DNF because it veered way too weird for her. Her review, to paraphrase, basically started with "I ignored the warning signs!", and after some discussion with another reader, she explained that some of the imagery in the book's "ghost world" climax was the reason she put the book down.

I don't blame her! I've put down lots of books that cross my particular "lines", that upset or disgust me in ways that I can't or don't want to handle. Sometimes a book is worth being disturbed or upset or just eye-rollingly grossed out... other times it isn't, and as readers we all have the right to decide which side of that line a book falls on. And honestly, I had a couple of oh-god-gag moments while I was writing the book, so it doesn't surprise me that a reader would too!

But one thing about her review did give me pause: the fact that she said she'd ignored the warning signs. Which was a bit of a lightbulb for me because... what warning signs?

Here's the content warning that Loose Id provides for potential readers of Hawaiian Gothic:
This book contains explicit sexual situations, graphic language, and material that some readers may find objectionable: male/male sexual practices. Includes a flashback of m/m/f menage.

Now look, I don't want to single out Loose Id, here. They're hardly the only publisher who uses warnings such as these, this just happens to be my book and my publisher, so of course that's what I'm going to talk about. Because here's the thing.

Hawaiian Gothic is listed as an LGBT romance. It features two semi-nude men in an embrace on its cover. The blurb, both long and short form, refer to men in a gay relationship. It's Loose Id, so we already know going in it's going to be erotic, because that's all they sell. Frankly, if you get through all that and still buy the book and complain because it's got gay dudes getting it on? I really don't have pity for you. Also, there's a high chance that you're a bigot.

Pictured: Gayness
So Hawaiian Gothic is about gay guys who have (consensual) sex a few times. It also has a flashback to an M/M/F ménage (that is, two guys getting it on with each other and a lady), a warning reviewer Cole Riann described quite astutely as warning: "flashback of girl cooties". And we all know my feelings on that particular chestnut.

But do you know what else it has? Disturbing medical scenes depicting the harsh reality of a person with a terminal illness and how it affects their family. Gay bashing and homophobia. Depiction of an abusive relationship. Murder. PTSD and war scenes. Assorted fantasy violence. Disturbing imagery including horrific fantastic creatures from myth. Maggots and other bugs described in detail. (Mild) drug use.

None of these things are warned for, but consensual sex between adults (specifically gay ones) is.

This argument is old hat in fandom, the general consensus--in my neck of the woods at least--being that warnings should be reserved for things that readers could potentially find triggering or upsetting, including but not limited to rape, violence, abusive language, or depictions of self-harm. By warning for consensual gay relationships, you are, in essence, suggesting that gay relationships need to be warned for on that same basis.

Should readers know what kind of book they are reading before they start? Absolutely! That's why we have genre distinctions, blurbs, cover art, and heat ratings. It's how I know how to avoid high fantasy, which is a genre I don't like, but am able to seek out terrible terrible Highlander romances, which I love beyond all reason (just look for the plaid!). Even within the romance genre, it's really not hard, for the most part, to tell between an M/F, M/M, F/F, or M/M/F book. If it were hard, I'd say a lot of cover artists weren't doing their job right.

But when you use the terminology of "warning", you're suggesting that the material is likely to disturb people and more than that, that they deserve the courtesy of being made aware of it. You know who gay sex disturbs? Homophobic bigots. And frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. If a bigot clicks on my gay romance with gay dudes on the cover labelled LGBT romance that they found on a site explicitly meant for erotic romance with lots of steamy sex scenes, that's their own damn fault. Cry me a river, bigots, and call someone who cares. Maybe you can try getting a hold of the hyperbolic-ly-named One Million Moms so they can organize a national protest and give me lots and lots of good press and attention while they're at it. (Seriously, how many of you shopped at JC Penny before the Ellen and gay-father's-day thing? Exactly.)

So anyway, back to the reader who DNFed my book. She said she ignored the warnings and ended up reading something that disturbed her. What warnings, you ask? The warnings of a reviewer, who'd hid them behind a spoiler tag. This is one of the many valuable functions of reviewers. They can warn us whether something is good or bad, if something is racist, if something is inappropriate for our kids of XYZ age to watch. They can warn rape survivors if there are triggering scenes. They can warn religious people if there's nudity. Having a favourite review site that you trust, that you can go to and know they can provide you with the information you need to navigate media according to your values, is a really important amazing thing. Consumers of media, including readers, deserve to be able to seek out information about any given thing and make informed choices.

On our end, publishers and producers of media can either help facilitate that process, or choose not to warn and let readers seek out information for themselves. After all, readers of good 'ole dead tree books have been going without publisher-provided warnings for content for a long damn time.

But if, as a publisher or writer or someone who produces media, you decide of your own volition to provide an official warning? You best damn make sure it's actually useful and relevant. 

So... yeah. Sorry, reviewer, that you didn't know about the maggot thing before you came upon it. I think this has been a wake-up call for me as an author that the pro-active thing to do in the future will be to make a warnings tab here on my website for potential readers to browse by book in order to make informed decisions about my writing. And as for various publishers (NOT JUST LOOSE ID, who I really must stress are really just conforming to an unspoken social standard within the genre at this point), perhaps it's time to consider who you're providing these warnings for: readers in your target audience, or bigots who shouldn't be browsing your site in the first place?

ETA: The reviewer recently updated her review to clarify she did, in fact, finish the book, but her criticism of the spirit world subject matter still stands. Edited because I didn't want to misrepresent her, even though I have chosen not to link to/name her without her permission.


  1. Warnings are a whole can of worms. As both publisher and author, I have started adding content information (not warnings, I don't think they're warnings) in my description of my books, all my books from YA through to M/M erotica, just in case someone doesn't check the category the book is under. Reason being a couple of folks on amazon got upset and trashed one of my books, a fantasy/sci-fi, for the guy-kissing. One person said 'they liked the overall story, but the gay sex was disgusting' and gave it a 1 star - well, actually there was no sex at all, just kissing and some nudity, no detailed descriptions and nothing explicit (which is unusual for me! ;) ). In fact in fanfic terms, it was definitely PG13.

    I just had to chalk it up to experience and was glad when some folks waded in with their own reviews to support the fact that the others were way off-base.

    1. Content information is an excellent way to get across the nature of what you're selling without invoking the sometimes-offensive language of warnings. I think that's actually the resolution people came to in fanfic, to put a "Contains" tag where you can list, in general, what readers can expect from a story, from pairing and degree of sexual content through to specific kinks for those who choose to avoid them OR seek them out!

      To bigots, sadly, all gay affection is considered "pornographic" and "sex". Which is why I can give my husband a peck on the cheek in public but couldn't do the same with my theoretical girlfriend or wife. Sorry about that one star reviewer, but heartened to hear people stood up to them! :)